Tongans are fighting for their livelihoods a month later

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People in Tonga are struggling to maintain their livelihoods following a massive underwater volcanic eruption and tsunami a month ago. A coronavirus outbreak only adds to their woes.

The recovery effort is slow, with ash and debris still strewn across most of the islands.

Government officials are particularly concerned about the long-term impact on agriculture – which supports 86% of all households – and fishing, another key industry.

Many people who depend on the ocean lost their equipment and ships in the tsunami. For others, the biggest problem is the water itself.

Australian Defense Force personnel clean up debris on Atata Island in Tonga.

“The tsunami washed away all our crops,” says Masatada Kawaguchi, a second-generation Japanese-Tongan. He grows mozuku seaweed in the country’s capital, Nuku’alofa. It typically exports around 100 tons, or 90% of its annual production, to Japan.

It used to start production in July, but ash and debris in the sea means it could be difficult this year.

“We need to see if there is contamination in the sea and assess the impact on mozuku to see if it is still suitable for export,” he says.

Masatada Kawaguchi
Seaweed farmer Masatada Kawaguchi is eager to check that his crop is safe after the tsunami. The photo was taken in 2019.

The pandemic is hampering relief efforts

Authorities in Tonga have been largely successful in containing the coronavirus pandemic over the past two years. Their efforts are now undone. Infections have increased since the eruption.

The very first confirmed cases of community transmission prompted a lockdown in February. Authorities are ordering residents and international aid workers to avoid person-to-person contact.

Some organizations trying to help the country’s recovery fear the measures could hamper the delivery of aid from other countries, especially to remote islands.

“This lockdown does not allow us to send more staff,” said Xiangjun Yao, head of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

“Timely assessments are absolutely necessary. As for the fishery, full recovery may take even more than three years.”

Japan and other countries trying to provide aid to Tonga should be aware of its strict anti-COVID measures.

Paula Ma’u, who holds the second-highest position in the government’s disaster management operations, says more than 150 people from the remote islands remain in evacuation centres. They cannot return until their houses are rebuilt.

“We need more cooperation from the international society,” says Paula Ma’u. “Not only financially, but also technically – humanitarian aid – during this most difficult time for Tonga.”

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